I kind of admire the nutcase Rachel Dolezal for going big on this “transracial” thing. She seems to understand that on questions of personal identity, our popular culture has become so emotivist (that is, so given over to believing that feelings determine reality) that she really can get away with calling herself black, even though her blackness is entirely in her head.
It helps that she has found a few high-profile black people in the media to support her claim. One of those people is MSNBC talk show host Melissa Harris-Perry, who conducted a sympathetic interview with Dolezal. Watch this clip from the interview, in which Dolezal defends the claim that she is black:
She says (emphasis below mine):
First of all, it means that I’ve really gone there with the experience in terms of being a mother of two black sons, and really owning what it means to experience and live black…blackness. So that’s one aspect. Another aspect would be that I, from a very young age, felt a spiritual, visceral—just very instinctual connection with “black is beautiful,” you know, just the black experience and wanting to celebrate that. And I didn’t know how to articulate that as a young child—y’know, kindergarten or whatever. You don’t have words for what’s going on. But certainly that was shut down. I was socially conditioned to not own that, and to be limited to be whatever biological identity was thrust upon and narrated to me. And so, I kind of felt pretty awkward a lot of times with that. I remember when [my parents] chose to adopt my younger siblings, and I, knowing the limitations and some of the resistance to my creative spirit and the creative ways I wanted to express myself, I felt like who was going to be the link for the kids coming to the family?
I can’t tell if Dolezal really believes this fairy tale, or if she’s putting up a brave front. What makes this so delicious is that she doesn’t say, “OK, you got me, I’m white, but was passing as black.” No, she insists that she really is black, solely because she says she is. And she calls her “biological identity” something that was pressed upon her — that is, not a fact rooted in observable reality, but a narrative, a story that she did not choose. So, by identifying as black, she overthrows her oppressive parents, and oppressive biology.
To be clear: what’s interesting about Dolezal’s case is not that she claims to be a white woman who has chosen to masquerade as black; she claims to be black.
If Dolezal is wrong, then why is Bruce Jenner right to claim that he is really a woman, and not a man who chooses to present himself as a woman? After all, the biological fact is that Jenner is male; he is even retaining his penis. He is only a woman because he says he is, and enough people agree with him to make this biological fiction true.
I believe that Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who wishes she were black, and who presents herself as black, and that Caitlyn Jenner is a man who wishes she were a woman, and who presents herself as a woman. I am not at all sure why one is widely considered to be a loon, while the other is celebrated as some sort of hero, except that custodians of popular culture scream “Transphobia!” if you doubt it.
It’s true that there is a certain amount of social construction in both race and gender. In the Jim Crow South, if you had even the slightest African blood in your veins, the law, and culture, considered you to be black. But if you were very light-skinned and straight-haired, and successfully presented yourself as white, you could “pass.” In New Orleans under French and Spanish rule, there was white, and there was black, and there was a third category, Creole, into which mixed race people were shunted. Under American rule, though, all Creoles were considered legally black. People who say that race is a social construct have a substantive point. I have an Italian-American friend classified as white who has darker skin than many black people. The color line is a lot more porous than we think.
However, you can’t deny ancestry, and you can’t deny genetics. The biological fact is that if you examined the DNA from Melissa Harris-Perry, whose father is black, and examined the DNA of Rachel Dolezal, you would find markers in Harris-Perry’s genes showing that she descends from Africans, and no such markers in Dolezal’s genes. The term “black,” however modified by social custom, is inextricably connected to biological characteristics. It is not arbitrary.
Similarly with male and female. I get the distinction between “sex” and “gender” (sex is about biology; gender is about social roles), but there is a clear connection between the two. Yes, in some societies gender roles are too rigid, and yes, I believe that people who experience gender dysphoria should be treated with compassion. But why should we agree that masculinity and femininity — that man and woman — are arbitrary categories? That there is no link between them and reality? That reality is whatever we say it is, when it suits our cultural politics?
It’s kind of amazing how so much of our contemporary disorder goes back to Nominalism.
Ideas have consequences. I’m with Charles C.W. Cooke here: if Rachel Dolezal wants to think of herself as black (or Caitlyn Jenner a woman), fine. But as Cooke says (speaking of the Dolezal case), if society accepts this as factual, there’s a myriad of legal and policy implications. Cooke:
In a vacuum, it is no skin off my nose how Dolezal chooses to behave in private. If she wishes to tell people she’s black, that’s her prerogative. If she genuinely believes that she is black, that’s her prerogative. Hell, if she wishes to lie brazenly about her past, that’s her prerogative. But we do not live entirely in a vacuum, under laws that draw no distinctions between people. Rather, for better or for worse, we have set up a whole host of institutions, programs, and conventions that were explicitly intended to help those have been historically victimized by the state and by the majority. It is all very well for [law professor] Camille Rich to suggest in theory that Dolezal should be able to “link herself to this community” regardless of her ancestry. But one has to inquire what that would mean in practice. Slowly but surely, transgender groups are convincing state governments to recognize the altered state of those who have transitioned — to the extent that even birth certificates are being amended post-hoc. Will the state be expected to treat Rachel Dolezal in a similar manner?
I don’t really think “transracialism” will ever become a thing, but there are other profound implications to the transgenderism project. With The New York Times these days undertaking a shock-and-awe culture war campaign on behalf of transgenderism, the Daily Beast does its part to demonize the normative family. Excerpt:
The news looks bad for America’s conservative rear-guard. This month’s decision by the Supreme Court may soon make marriage equality the law of the land. Over three-quarters of Americans support anti-discrimination protection for gays and lesbians. One of our star athletes (and a Republican!) has transitioned her gender to overwhelming (though not universal) applause.
Does the Christian Right have a Plan B?
You bet they do. Their main weapon is an unfamiliar term: “natural family.” And they’re going to use it to beat back advances in women’s and LGBT equality worldwide, starting at the UN.
It’s easy to dismiss this plan, if only for the irony of Christian conservatives teaming up with Russia (!) to fight LGBTs and women at the United Nations. New World Order indeed. But irony aside, they might just win.
The piece, a hysterical bit of propaganda, tars American Christian conservatives with a lack of patriotism for making common cause with Russians who actually believe in the natural family. The Christians are not just wrong; they are evil traitors.
It is striking the way memes like this are rocketing through our culture and establishing themselves as unchallengeable orthodoxies. Dr. Paul McHugh, the retired Johns Hopkins psychiatrist, writes about how the new transgender orthodoxy does not comport with the reality of what he observed at his university hospital, which used to perform sex-change surgeries. Excerpt:
But the meme—that your sex is a feeling, not a biological fact, and can change at any time—marches on through our society. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. In that tale, the Emperor, believing that he wore an outfit of special beauty imperceptible to the rude or uncultured, paraded naked through his town to the huzzahs of courtiers and citizens anxious about their reputations. Many onlookers to the contemporary transgender parade, knowing that a disfavored opinion is worse than bad taste today, similarly fear to identify it as a misapprehension.
I am ever trying to be the boy among the bystanders who points to what’s real. I do so not only because truth matters, but also because overlooked amid the hoopla—enhanced now by Bruce Jenner’s celebrity and Annie Leibovitz’s photography—stand many victims. Think, for example, of the parents whom no one—not doctors, schools, nor even churches—will help to rescue their children from these strange notions of being transgendered and the problematic lives these notions herald. These youngsters now far outnumber the Bruce Jenner type of transgender. Although they may be encouraged by his public reception, these children generally come to their ideas about their sex not through erotic interests but through a variety of youthful psychosocial conflicts and concerns.
On how many university campuses today could Paul McHugh make this argument without being hauled up on charges that he had maligned the identity of trans students?
I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to be a teenager today, bombarded with propaganda about sex and sexuality, a campaign that demands total surrender to its ideology. I was thinking that Rachel Dolezal’s crackpottery would demonstrate to people how fraught with cultural politics transgenderism is, and how fragile are its claims. Almost nobody believes that Dolezal is black just because she says she is, and if people see that Dolezal’s claim is in principle no different from Jenner’s claim, then they will rethink the wisdom of rushing to embrace transgenderism. And then I saw just now that a Stanford professor has a prominently featured op-ed on the New York Times website in which she expresses gratitude to Dolezal for opening up the topic for discussion, and indicates sympathy for her. Says the professor:
As we contemplate the morality of her choice, however, we might do well to reflect on how such individual choices might relate to the larger collective goals of social justice. One can only imagine the impact they would have if a significant number of white Americans chose to identify themselves as kindred of Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Freddie Gray, Kayla Moore, Oscar Grant, Shelly Frey and Michael Brown.
Ah. If “social justice” could be achieved by agreeing that a white woman is black, just because she says she is, then we must all agree that a white woman is black, just because she says she is. So who knows? A decade from now, the Times could be calling Rachel Dolezal the Rosa Parks of the transracialists, and leading a Crusade for Transracialist Dignity. You know how you can tell if something is Right and True with the overculture, and learn to anticipate what they’re going to do next? By asking yourself, “Is this perceived to advance the cause of Progressivism? Does this piss off the Christians?”
It is going to be a long time before the Emperor finds his slanket.